What should travelers do in Guangzhou? Just down the road (or railroad track) from Hong Kong, Guangzhou is a major international trade city, and it’s an increasingly likely travel destination or stopover, with the expansion of low-cost air carriers into the market. These Guangzhou sightseeing suggestions appropriate for all sorts of travelers, with or without Chinese language skills.

Guangzhou is the third largest city in China, and while it doesn’t have the instant worldwide name recognition of Beijing and Shanghai, it holds at least as prominent a spot these days in the realm of international business. That means more and more foreigners are finding themselves in the Cantonese city on the Pearl River Delta, whether for a short trip, an extended stay, or an expatriate life.

The Basics

Guangzhou (pronounced Kwang-joe or –dzoh) is located on the southeastern coast of the country; it’s like the Florida of China. The climate is generally warm but rainy for many months of the year. Guangzhou is much closer to Hong Kong than to Beijing, and it’s a quicker flight from Guangzhou to Hanoi or Manila than to the Chinese capital.

Guangzhou is in the province of Guangdong and was formerly known in the West as “Canton”–the source of Cantonese cuisine and language. The city has history, it has travel connections, and it has quite a lot of delicious food. So, what should be on your to-do list there? Here are five ideas that will help you taste the cultural flavour of Guangzhou.

Chen Clan Academy

Halls, courtyards, carved rooftop edges, and quiet spots of greenery make up the Chen Clan Academy complex, which was completed in 1894 as a place for Chen family members to prepare for their imperial examinations. Money for the academy was raised from several dozen Chen families throughout the province of Guangdong. Chen Clan Academy now contains a museum of folk art, a tea shop, and historical titbits for tourists to enjoy as they stroll around and gaze at the architecture, furniture, and artefacts. Located in Liwan District, Chen Clan is easily accessible on Guangzhou Metro Line 1.

Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King

If you’d like to see the really old side of Guangdong province, visit the site where the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King was discovered. The ancient Nanyue kingdom included areas that are now part of China and Vietnam. The king who was buried in the tomb, named Zhao Mo, ruled from 137 B.C. to 122 B.C. At the museum, you can walk into the excavated tomb area and behold impressive historical relics, including the jade burial suit of the ruler. The Nanyue King Mausoleum is in the middle of the city, accessible by subway or bus; the tomb was discovered in the early 1980s during the construction of a hotel.

Zhujiang New Town

The heart of shiny, modern, skyscraper-filled life for many foreigners in Guangzhou is the Zhujiang New Town district. “Zhujiang” means “Pearl River” and the New Town is still the site of booming construction, but there are already plentiful restaurants and bars, multiple luxury apartments, and several swanky hotels to enjoy. Walk around the site of the Guangzhou Opera House, visit the informative (and free!) Guangdong Provincial Museum for an overview of the area’s history from ancient times through the present, enjoy the view of the Canton Tower just across the Pearl River, and then head to one of the many Zhujiang New Town bars or pubs for some lively nightlife.

A Pearl River Cruise

The bustling sidewalks alongside the Pearl River at night are exciting: you can find Guangzhou’s vendors, performers, couples, families, tourists, foreign residents, and locals all mingling on the riverside. Travel to Haizhu Square by taking the Guangzhou Metro or walking south from the shopping extravaganza that is Beijing Lu (Beijing Road). In this area, there are several docks from which you can hop on board a boat for a short cruise down the Pearl River. Enjoy an hour of relaxation while passing under neon-lit bridges and snapping photos of the Canton Tower, exquisitely lit up in changing colours throughout the darkened evening. When you get off the boat, be sure to indulge in some spicy barbecued kebabs, available from sidewalk sellers at the bargain price of approximately one U.S. dollar.

Shamian Island

The prettiest place in Guangzhou might be Shamian Island, if the constant bridal magazine and wedding photo shoots taking place there are any indication. Shamian Island is a small sandbank in the Liwan District, carved out of the Pearl River and home to cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. It was formerly the city’s foreign concession, with land divided between the British and French. Today it attracts both locals and tourists to its art and souvenir shops and tree-lined streets.

Wherever you go in Guangzhou, you won’t be far from someplace to shop, a plethora of eating establishments, and several options for grabbing an espresso drink. You can also hail a taxi almost anywhere, and the bilingual Guangzhou Metro is easy to navigate (although it does get very crowded). Dive in to the Cantonese city and experience another side of China in Guangzhou.